As the number of English vocabularies required by my English literature teacher is increasing, I am now confronting a great problem memorizing them in a short time. Simple words are okay to me, but it's especially difficult when I come across words with crazy suffixes and prefixes or with tricky interchangeable prefixes (such as proclaim, declaim, acclaim, reclaim, disclaim and exclaim).

Since I'm a clever guy (or I just made up :D), I found out a post somewhere written by a Chinese, which was upvoted to the top of the "English Learning" category, and therefore I read it carefully. This post greatly recommends folks to make use of word roots. The writer argues that it can help you spell it correctly, remember the accurate definition, and deal with multiple evolved meanings of a word.

Personally, most of my English vocabularies are remembered by rote memorization, which is, as I have experienced it in person, super inefficient. Since I am convinced by this post, I would like to change my out-of-date method into this new one and give it a shot. However, I would like to know more before I get started.

Thus, would you like to give me your perspective to this method and show off your personal way of English word memorization?

By the way, Word Power Made Easy by Norman Lewis was mentioned in that guy's post.

After reading such a number of reasonable, detailed and helpful answers, I ruminated and decided not to second (in fact, I did :D) any answer here to avoid leaving future confusion to visitors to this post. Every answer here is super delicious, and thus it's hard to judge a BEST one. And, I believe, everyone have his/her own ways of vocabularies acquisition so it depends. Am I right? o(^v^)o

At last, sincere thanks to everyone who generously answered this post and gave me their interesting perspectives. ;D

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    Some points: 1) Love your main question, but talking about a book is unfortunately off-topic on ELL. You could mention that the guy used it as evidence or whatever though. 2) If this Root memorizing refers to ways of connecting words like advert/revert, then it'd be confusing at best in the long run. However, I wouldn't imagine how one could not connect "pollute" to "pollution" when learning them. That is, word formation is one efficient way to connect words of the same Latin, French etc. root. 3) Welcome to ELL!
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Jul 27, 2015 at 16:04
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    Um... So would you like to tell me where is the correct place that I can talk about this given topic? Commented Jul 27, 2015 at 16:14
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    Alternatively, there are chatrooms you can access via English Language Learners Chat. Also, to the close voters: I do not agree with the closure. There has been past questions which remained since they were useful to ELLers. How is this not useful?
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Jul 27, 2015 at 16:22
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    I don't have enough to say to write as an answer, but I second the use of Word Power Made Easy and studying roots, prefixes, and suffixes. As a native speaker of AmE, I took four years of Latin in high school many years ago, plus we used WPME as our text in one year's English class. I frequently find myself deciphering Spanish or Italian words and unfamiliar English words via the roots and cognates, although you do need to be careful (embarazada comes to mind as a notable "false friend").
    – shoover
    Commented Jul 27, 2015 at 18:37
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    I think that learning anything is helped by knowing a bit more than just the bare facts, any "back story" helps memory. And a feeling for roots and how things evolved can be that. But a way to do that would be to pick up some Latin, French, another Germanic language... that's a wildly inefficient way to learn English if you're not already from northwestern Europe or so. Commented Jul 27, 2015 at 20:24

6 Answers 6


First, I think I would say that native speakers do not learn most words by memorizing roots. The most common vocabulary is acquired by rote memorization in the first 12 years or so of life. Furthermore, about 26% of words in English are Germanic in origin, with a greater percentage among common words, and these roots are rarely taught, with most courses focusing on Latin or Greek roots.

That being said, when learning specialized and technical (read: Greek-derived and Latin-derived) vocabulary later in life, most native speakers do learn the roots. Many test preparation guides recommend some knowledge of roots for standarized tests such as the GRE or SAT, where testers can benefit from making educated guesses. Learning roots can help one remember words (again, most often of the technical variety). Example: many educated native speakers know that the word analgesia comprises the roots an-, meaning not or none, and algesia, from the Greek Ἄλγος, meaning pain. Nearly every native speaker knows that the root phobia refers to fear. If I asked a native speaker what algophobia meant, they would stand a good chance of guessing that it referred to fear of pain. Even if they did not, once they understood the meaning, it would be quite easy to associate it with analgesia in their mind.

So roots are useful, but most native speakers did not use them to learn their base vocabulary. Refer and defer share a root, but few could tell you what it means. (It comes from the Latin ferre, meaning to carry).

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    @DavidRicherby In those first two sentences: "First, I think I would say that native speakers do not learn most words by memorizing roots. The most common vocabulary is acquired by rote memorization in the first 12 years or so of life.", "root" is not the same as "rote". So there is no contradiction. Commented Jul 27, 2015 at 20:17
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    @CroadLangshan I may have misread that -- thanks for pointing it out. However, I strongly dispute the claim that native speakers learn anything by rote memorization. Commented Jul 27, 2015 at 20:28
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    @CroadLangshan I think we might be interpreting "learn by rote" in a different way. To me, the phrase means, essentially, sitting down with a list of words and learning them; Pinker (and perhaps Jonah, too) seems to use the term to mean that one just has to learn that, for example, "cat" means the miaowing thing and "dog" means the barking thing, since those are essentially arbitrary and can't be inferred from any rules. Commented Jul 27, 2015 at 21:03
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    @DavidRicherby You say that you "don't recall ever sitting down with a list of words in [your] native language and learning them." Hells bells, man! When you were in grade school didn't you have daily or weekly lists of "spelling words" that you had to swot up for quizzes? If that's not "rote memorization" then I don't know what is!
    – Eli Skolas
    Commented Jul 27, 2015 at 21:44
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    I am a native speaker of English and I never learnt any new words by any method other than rote memorization until I was into secondary school. We may have learnt different forms of words by reference to a root (run/running/runs) but that's not the same thingand even that example shows the problem with the root system if we continue into "ran". "go/going/went"; "drive/driving/dove/driven" etc. English is full of traps for root-based learning. I well remember taking home long lists of words to memorize from primary school, and being tested on them the next day. I am 50 years old, BTW.
    – Nagora
    Commented Jul 28, 2015 at 8:09

I think that knowing root words is good, but there are times when it really isn't terribly helpful. I think your example illustrates the limitations. Knowing the word claim, in my opinion does not give very much insight to the meaning of proclaim, declaim, acclaim, reclaim, disclaim and exclaim. Knowing the root is nice, but you still have to know all of these words individually, or it will be easy to make wrong assumptions. For instance:

Tom claimed again that he was tired.

This is one use of the word claim. You might be tempted to think that because the prefix re means to do again we could rewrite the sentence as follows:

Tom reclaimed that he was tired.

But this is not good usage of the word reclaim. Reclaim is used like recycle, or to assert ownership.

Jim reclaimed his seat on the couch from his little sister.

I'm not saying don't use roots at all, but be very careful that you don't make incorrect assumptions. I can sympathize with the difficulty of rote memorization, but I advize caution when making implications from root words.


As I commented on the question about "Ways to organize an ESL course":

The "Morphographs" system is the best program I have seen for teaching people how to: expand their English vocabulary, spell more words, and use concepts with different grammatical forms. It is meant to be a 1 year supplement for elementary school students. It has lots of game-like activities. It emphasizes creatively mixing and matching the roots of English words, and understanding how the prefixes and suffixes affect whether the word is a noun, verb, adjective, or adverb.

Regarding the words in the original poster's question:

  • Your vocabulary is the collection of words that you can use and/or understand.
  • Each word in your vocabulary is a distinct vocabulary word; it is not a distinct vocabulary.

After you learn the roots of the words, you will find it easier to understand the words -- but you will still need to do some memorization. For example:

  • "-claim" means "speak out" or "declare", as in "claim" or "clamor".
  • "pro-" means "forward" or "in favor of".
  • "de-" means "not", in the sense of "undo".
  • "ac-" means "with" or "together". "ab-", "ac-", and "ad-" are different forms of the same prefix. The form that is used depends on the first letter of the next root.
  • "re-" means "again".
  • "dis-" means "not", in the sense of "negation".
  • "ex-" mean "not" or "former" (as in "ex-wife") or "put out" (as in "exhale").

Notice that three of these prefixes mean "not", but they combine with "-claim" to make different words that mean different things. You might expect "proclaim" to be the opposite of "exclaim" and "declaim", but they have similar meanings.

Knowing the roots can help you learn the meanings of the words, by remembering the meanings of related words that are more common. For example:

  • "Proclaim" means "announce to the world", as in Lincoln's "Emancipation Proclamation".
  • "Declaim" means "Make a loud speech". I imagine a man at a podium yelling down at a crowd.
  • "Acclaim" means "fame" or "honor". I imagine a crowd of people cheering for the star of a parade.
  • "Reclaim" means "take back". Sometimes people "reclaim" something (like a swamp) that they never had in the first place.
  • "Disclaim" means "deny ownership of". Companies write "disclaimers" to say that they are not responsible for things that might go wrong.
  • "Exclaim" means "say suddenly" or "say loudly". An "exclamation mark" is used to indicate sentences that are exclaimed.

As you can see, understanding the roots can help you understand the words. But if you try to guess what the words mean just by understanding the roots, you might guess wrong.

Some roots are easier to understand than others. For example, roots that change a word's part of speech tend to have clear meanings.


As the answer by Jasper points out, it is important to learn not only the roots, but the affixes (prefixes, suffixes).

In my experience, knowing root words is a tremendous assistance to recalling the meaning of a word that I have already memorized by rote. For instance, if I learn the root meaning of base, and I know my prefixes and, if possible, suffixes, then calling to mind the meaning of the following is a lot easier than without this knowledge:


That's twelve or more words. And some of these words are from Latin, some from French, some have a slightly different meaning for 'base' (low, foundation). But, in my experience (which is what you asked for), simply knowing that base means low is a tremendous help to recalling what these words mean. But my initial learning of them was probably one by one, with a couple exceptions.


As a native speaker of American English, I would not recommend trying to extrapolate words from their root words.

An example of root words being confusing with meanings.

The root word terr which is not used in of it self, but has several different meanings in modern usage depending on it's form.

Terror: To inspire fear.

Terrific: To be exceptional.

Terra: Planet Earth and/or the ground.

Terr, the root word appears in all three of the words. Their predecessor's forms, usages, and eventually their meanings have over time become completely divergent at this point.

An example of diverging usages is the root word awe, which is sometimes used and two of it's popular derivatives.

Awe: A state of wonder or amazement, can be from reverence, fear, or fascination.

Awesome: Literally means inspiring of awe.

Awful: Also literally means inspiring of awe, but is now commonly used to refer to things that are unpleasant.

That's just my two cents on it. Hopefully it will help someone.

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    "The root word 'terr' which is not used in of itself".. can it be called root word, if 'terr' itself is not a word? (at least I couldn't find the definition of 'terr' as a word)
    – Andrew T.
    Commented Jul 28, 2015 at 4:25
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    Terr isn't a root word, it's an coincidental grouping of letters. Terra has a completely different etymological root than terror and terrific, which share the same root and originally had related meanings. Commented Jul 28, 2015 at 5:42
  • In response to that, the following definition: dictionary.reference.com/browse/terror in which the latin terr (ere ) is referenced.
    – Zel
    Commented Jul 28, 2015 at 20:25

Generally it is said that the Latin vocabulary in English is 30 per cent and the French vocabulary also 30 per cent. As French is based on Latin one may say two thirds of the English vocabulary is Latin based. If you read top newspapers or scientific books the frequency of Latin-based vocabulary is astonishingly high.

So it would be normal to think that books about Latin word formation and basic vocabulary should be used as a fixed part of education in the English language. It would help enormously to be able to use a Latin dictionary, to know the basic Latin vocabulary and its word formation with prefixes and suffixes.

But I have not seen such books. And I don't wonder why this is so. It would be very difficult to convey such things. Either you know Latin or you have to struggle with Latin vocabulary.

Actually the Latin vocabulary is the key to understanding all the terms in the various sciences. The secret language number one in the western world is Latin. But only those who have studied Latin have that key.

For decades I have been playing around with the idea to create a kind of Basic Latin, a Latin with no irregularities, with one simplified conjugation, one declension, English word order and a canonical collection of texts in Basic Latin (BL). BL would be as easy to learn as Esperanto and it would deliver the key to the difficult and hard words. It would be an easy task, I have experimented with BL and even written some texts in BL. But I am too old to tackle such a project. Actually it would be a university project.

As we have no Basic Latin there is only one way to understand Latin vocabulary by using the Online Etymology Dictionary and studying Latin prefixes and suffixes. And perhaps to have a look at online Latin dictionaries. Unfortunately those dictionaries show only single words and give no hint at the word family a word belongs to or the row of compound verbs that belong to a simplex verb.

Link Latin prefixes

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